by Marion Nestle
Feb 3 2012

The U.K. food industry fights labeling efforts, successfully

Tim Lang, professor of food policy at City University, London, writes that the U.K. food industry is fighting back over initiatives to reduce calories and mitigate climate change.

He sends an article from the British trade publication, The Grocerabout how the U.K. government has reneged on its “responsibility deal” with industry to reduce calories in food products. 

The idea was to demand that food companies reformulate products, control portion size, and take “action to shift to lower calorie options.”

But now, in response to industry protests,  the U.K. Department of Health is simply inviting food companies to help in the development of calorie-reduction policies.

To this invitation to the fox to guard the chickens, professor Lang comments:

Those of us following the currently fashionable ‘nudge’ theory and other ‘Food Policy lite’ initiatives will note this leak about softening the Responsibility Deal on calorie reduction here in England with concern…Perish the thought that sections of the Food Industry might have lobbied hard to stop any efforts to reduce portion size. Perish, indeed.

Another article in The Grocer points out that Tesco, Britain’s leading food retailer, is pulling out of an agreement to put carbon labels on products becausedoing so is too much trouble.

Professor Lang writes:

Here is the world’s 3rd largest food retailer, Tesco, apparently saying that the carbon label (a weak system for changing behaviour in the first place, perhaps) takes too much time. Well, well, well.

If this is true…the implications are considerable, not least for the planet, given that a third of European (i.e., rich consumers) greenhouse gas emissions are due to food.

He gives as sources for that statement:

  • Tukker, A., et al., Environmental Impacts of Diet Changes in the EU. 2009, European Commission Joint Research Centre Institute for Prospective Technological Studies: Seville.
  • Tukker, A., et al., Environmental Impact of Products (EIPRO): Analysis of the life cycle environmental impacts related to the final consumption of the EU-25. EUR 22284 EN. 2006, European Commission Joint Research Centre.: Brussels.
  • Audsley, E., et al., How Low Can We Go? An assessment of greenhouse gas emissions from the UK food system and the scope for reduction by 2050 2010, FCRN and WWF: Godalming, Surrey.

So much for voluntary actions by industry.  Regulation anyone?

 This just in: The European Commission issued a statement of regret that the European Parliament vetoed its proposal to allow “percent less” health claims on food packages yesterday.  These are statements that a product contains 15% less sugar, for example.

The Commission thinks such claims will encourage reformulation of food products.  The Parliament believes that such claims are misleading and will promote sales of junk foods. 

Which is right? Who knows?

  • Margeretrc

    Do we really need labels to know that practically any processed food has a ginormous carbon footprint compared to fresh, local unprocessed stuff? I certainly don’t. You want people to eat more responsibly for the environment? Education is a strategy that eliminates the need to involve industry. If people wish to eat to save the planet, they can. Avoid processed foods. Period. And don’t eat industrially raised meat. Don’t know if they even have that in the UK, but…Now, I know produce and other non processed foods can also have a bit of a big footprint, as well, depending on from where it is shipped and how it was grown, but one can minimize that by eating local, seasonal, etc. when possible. The label “organic” takes care of the “how it was grown” and “product of” takes care of the “from where.” Don’t know if the Brits do that, but we do. If they don’t, they could implement a policy requiring such labels. Industry can hardly claim that it “takes too much time” to slap a label on a product showing from where it came and whether or not it was grown organically!

  • Margeretrc

    ‘The idea was to demand that food companies reformulate products, control portion size, and take “action to shift to lower calorie options.'” That’s just dumb. Of course industry is going to fight a demand to give the consumer something the consumer doesn’t want! It’s bad for business. If the consumer wants lower calorie stuff, believe me, industry will provide it. And the consumer can control portion size. Lowering the calories per portion of a processed food more than likely involves decreasing the fat and increasing the carbohydrates. Look where that has gotten us here in the US and it wasn’t even demanded by our government. It was “demanded” by the consumer in response to misguided government recommendations.

  • justthefacts

    Sorry to hear about this, Marion. Since Cameron came in, UK seems to be chipping away at public health initiatives.
    It bears repeating that while some adults have high information levels about food and nutrition, children do not, and that policies such as these are aimed at a general public–especially those who lack information.